The firefight started about two hours before dawn, while it was still full dark in the jungle. Early on May 11, muzzle flashes lit up the sky as a small fleet of U.S. helicopters engaged a boatload of drug smugglers on a twisting, thickly-wooded stretch of the Patuca River, in the Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras. It was a short, one-sided fight. The four Super Huey helicopters — piloted by a combination of Guatemalan Air Force officers and U.S. civilian contractors, manned by Honduran military door gunners and carrying both national police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officers — had surprised the armed smugglers on the riverbank in the process of loading their cargo into a shallow-drafted skiff. The traffickers opened fire first, but strafing runs from the Hueys and fire support from agents on the ground, quickly overwhelmed the outlaws. Initial reports claimed that two of the drug runners were killed at the scene, the rest fled into the jungle and almost a ton of cocaine was recovered. U.S. and Honduran media spun the incident as a major victory against the cartels, and American officials corroborated those claims.
But soon a different a story began to emerge. The amount of narcotics supposedly seized in the raid, as reported by the New York Times and other media that had picked up the story, literally changed overnight — reduced by half. Meanwhile, locals from a nearby village began to complain that tactical units deployed by the helicopters had broken down doors to search houses and rough up residents after the firefight. Even worse, instead of two dead smugglers, villagers alleged that a total of four innocent civilians had been killed by fire from Honduran officers, who were under direct supervision of DEA field agents. Two of the dead were said to be pregnant women. All the victims had been indigenous passengers traveling aboard a local water taxi on the same stretch of the river in the pre-dawn darkness. Another four passengers were also allegedly wounded, including a teenage boy who lost his hand, and a woman badly shot through both legs.
“The drug boat was running without lights and going downriver, toward the coast. The launch carrying civilian passengers had its lights on, and was headed inland. But, for whatever reason, the helicopters shot at them anyway,” says Norvin Goff, President of the United Mosquitia Organization of Honduras (MASTA), an NGO dedicated to protecting the rights of local indigenous.
“We’re trapped in the middle,” Goff says. “We’re caught between the drug gangs on one side, and the army and police on the other. If we cooperate with one group, we’re targeted by the other. The situation in these poor villages is very desperate.”
In the wake of the killings, a flurry of reports in Honduran and U.S. media suggested that the escalation of the war on drugs might be putting innocent lives at risk, and further undermining the nation’s already tenuous hold on democracy. As the media firestorm gathered strength, competing versions of events in Mosquitia continued to surface. Both Honduran law enforcement and the U.S. State Department officials have cast doubt on the claims of the local victims. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, who has a very poor track record on human rights, even went so far as to blame the villagers for having tried to “defend” the smugglers from the attacking helicopters. But MASTA’s Goff disagrees.
“Nobody in the water taxi was even armed. It [the water taxi] is a family business that has been serving the community for years. Everybody travels on the river, since there are no roads. But of course [police officials] must cast blame on the victims, because they’ve got innocent blood on their hands.”
The DEA declined multiple invitations to be interviewed for this article.
Adam Isacson, Senior Associate at the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), agrees with MASTA President Goff about the disconcerting lack of accountability, especially on the part of U.S. officials.
“It’s troubling that the DEA didn’t own up to the killings,” says Isacson, who recently returned from a conference in Guatemala City, where he advised regional governments on the hazards of militarizing law enforcement. “As long as they keep using the same playbook, we’re going to see more of that.”
Press freedom and democracy under attack
The United Nations lists Honduras as the most dangerous nation on the planet, with a rate of one violent death every 74 minutes. And the violence isn’t restricted to remote places like Mosquitia.
“Freedom of the national press is under attack from various sectors in Honduras,” says Benoit Hervieu, who heads up the Americas Desk of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB). At least 17 journalists have been killed since June of 2009, when a military putsch overthrew the democratically-elected government.
“The problems in Honduras all go back to the coup,” Hervieu says. “Since then many journalists have been killed to silence the political opposition.” But Hervieu also says that as democracy has retreated, and the drug gangs have stepped into fill the vacuum, “the criminals also target outspoken journalists, to intimidate the press.”
Two reporters were killed in the month of May alone. One of them Alfredo Villatoro, was a prominent host on HRN, the country’s largest radio station. Villatoro’s body was found on May 15, a week after he’d been kidnapped while on his way to work. His body was dressed in a stolen police uniform, and he had been shot in the head.
“Alfredo was killed to send a message,” says Nahum Valladares, who heads up the International Desk at HRN. “The cartels think if they kill enough of us, then nobody will bother them anymore.” Valladares admits that 47-year-old Villatoro had publicly supported a recent government crackdown on organized crime. “Now his wife is a widow and his children have no father. All because he had the courage to speak out against the gangs.”
Honduras is currently ranked 143 out of 178 countries on the worldwide press freedom index. RWB’s Hervieu says that kind of chilling effect on the expression of ideas directly impacts democratic processes and government accountability. But Honduran authorities’ iron-fisted and sweeping response to the cartels, he says, has further destabilized the country and eroded security for journalists, activists and human rights workers.
“Unfortunately,” Hervieu says, “the [U.S.-backed] War on Drugs has provided plenty of opportunities for political revenge.”
Ground zero in the War on Drugs
According to the State Department, 79 percent of all the cocaine flown out of South America has a scheduled layover in Honduras, largely due to the country’s widespread poverty and political instability, which make it a haven for the cartels. In response, the DEA has ramped up its anti-drug efforts, sending down commando-style squads attached to special helicopter units, such as the one involved in the Patuca raid. About six hundred U.S. military personnel are also stationed full-time in Honduras, most of them at the Soto Cano airbase near the capital of Tegucigalpa, as part of Joint Task Force Bravo (JTFB). The Pentagon spent about 53.8 million on contracts in Honduras in 2011, a jump of 71 percent from the previous fiscal year. The U.S. military has also begun construction on at least eight different forward bases, airstrips and other installations, since 2009 — all in a country about the size of Tennessee.
Colonel Ross A. Brown, who commands JTFB from the semi-permanent installation at Soto Cano, says that until recently, the primary mission of U.S. forces in Honduras was emergency aid and relief efforts, including on-the-spot medical and dental care, and airlifting emergency supplies to remote communities.
“But the focus has changed in the last year,” says Brown, who also served with distinction in Iraq, and will rotate back to the Pentagon after this assignment.
Now JTFB’s primary line of effort, Colonel Brown told In These Times, is “countering transnational organized crime.” JTFB supports the Honduran and other Central American armed forces as well as the U.S. interagency including DEA, but Department of Defense rules of engagement limit the direct involvement of U.S. troops.
Even so, powerful critics in Washington contend that militarized crime fighting in Honduras is producing too much collateral damage. In March, members of both the U.S. House and Senate signed letters requesting that the State Department curtail further military training and assistance to the country, due to the ongoing human rights abuses being committed under the rule of President Lobo. Lobo came to power after the 2009 coup, and despite complaints from elected officials, remains one of the Obama Administration’s closest allies in the region.
Whatever the Administration’s foreign policy objectives are, WOLA analyst Isacson says the strategies currently being employed in the regional drug war are not likely to succeed.
“Everybody knows what needs to be done [in Honduras],” he says. “They need police academies. They need forensics. They need a functional justice system. Just pumping money into a corrupt military is only going to make a bad situation worse.”
Colonel Brown agrees about the need for better infrastructure and policing methods. But he defends JTFB’s working relationship with the Honduran military as an opportunity to exert a positive influence.
“We’re setting an example down here,” says Brown. ““We’re showing them what it means to be a military that is subordinate to a democratic government and a free civilian society.”
When asked about the Patuca raid, Brown explains that the helicopters involved were not under his command, but were under the direct control of the DEA and U.S. State Department, and therefore operating under different rules of engagement (JTFB gunships are not allowed to fire in support of Honduran authorities on the ground).
Instead of incompetence or flawed tactics, Brown says a confusing battlefield may be the cause of the tragedy in Mosquitia. “At night, during a firefight in unknown territory, where the enemy is mixed in with the general population – it can be hard to tell who the bad guys are,” he says. “[That’s why] service members must be well trained and disciplined and only fire when they can discern friend from foe and foe from innocent civilian.”
Fighting a “criminal insurgency”
Colonel Brown, a West Point graduate, says that the drug-fueled forces terrorizing Honduras don’t have an ideological motivation, as was the case in Iraq. Instead, Brown says it may be a “criminal insurgency.”
“It’s not an attempt to take over the government,” he says. “[The gangs] don’t want to be responsible for medical care, or make sure schools open on time. They’re looking to destabilize for their own advantage, so they can make a profit.”
Other observers say that the irresponsible tactics employed by Honduran authorities, and their partners in the DEA and State Department, are dangerously similar to those of the “criminal insurgents” they’re fighting against — despite the brave efforts of officers like Colonel Brown:
“We are very poor, and need many things [from the government],” says MASTA President Goff. “Education. Doctors. A future for our children, so they don’t have to grow up to be drug smugglers. But instead [of helping], they come here and shoot at us,” Goff says. “In that way, they’re just as bad as the cartels.”
An earlier version of this article reported that four civilians were killed in the raid in Mosquitia, two of whom were pregnant women. The article has been updated to reflect differing accounts of the incident delivered by Honduran and US authorities.